It’s been a long wet July and we still have at least another couple of months of hot and humid summer weather ahead of us. The hardest part of living in a warm climate that gets even hotter during the summer months is the dramatic lack of races. Of course, that’s because nobody in their right mind would want to run or walk very much in the heat. Most Florida runners and walkers take a break from training during the summer. However, there is at least one race that caters to the masochistic racer who is determined to find a way to run during the summer without traveling all the way to northern Canada.
Hot to Trot is that race. It is a timed event, 8 hours in duration, that is held in Sweetwater Creek State Park, just west of Atlanta. The Georgia Ultrarunning & Trailrunning Society (known affectionately as G.U.T.S.) puts the race on and this year Ryan Cobb did a masterful job in his first attempt as race director. To enter, you must either know Ryan or send him your credentials as an ultrarunner. This is not because it is necessary to qualify by time or mileage but rather to make sure that participants understand how to manage nutrition and hydration in hot humid weather conditions. Not a problem, I think, as I send Ryan my past ultra results; surely training in Florida heat has inured me to any potential problems.
Only 100 people can enter the race and I manage to get in. I purposely go out in the middle of the afternoon almost every day in July to walk, walk, and walk some more, as preparation; I welcome the sweating that covers my torso and my dripping tee shirts as proof that I can handle the heat. As race weekend approaches, I begin gathering my paraphernalia for a drop bag. We are warned to bring our own electrolytes and pain killers but the usual array of aid station goodies as well as Heed (no Gatorade) and water will be available at the single aid station. Since the course is a 1.18 mile loop, we will pass this one aid station many times (we hope).
On August 3rd, my husband and I head north to Lithia Springs where we had a hotel reservation at a brand-new Hilton Garden Inn. We made great time and arrived well before check-in time so we made a trial run to the park to check out the location and how long it would take us to get there. It turns out that the park is a short 10 minute drive from the hotel which made it extremely convenient. After a filling lunch at a neighboring CrackerBarrel, we return to the hotel, finally check in, and I try very hard to relax. I still don’t understand why I get so anxious before a race. If this were my first, or even my 10th, race, it would be reasonable to be nervous but, come on, this will be number 115, so I tell myself sternly to knock off the worry and somehow I manage to get several hours of sleep. Still, I wake up with the usual concerns: will I get lost? will I trip and fall? will I manage to get at least 27 miles in so this will count as an ultra? Notice that none of my concerns involve the heat; I am fairly confident that I can manage heat.
Packet pick-up begins at 6:30 race morning so we leave about quarter past 6 and follow the signs to the parking area. We are early. Volunteers are just beginning to set things up, so we wait around trying not to get in the way while doing our best to help in little ways like holding up a spotlight so people can see. The sky begins to lighten and more people come and the bibs and shirts are handed out. The tee shirt is a dark short-sleeve tech shirt with Hot to Trot emblazoned across the front and back. That is sure to be a conversation starter so I’m glad the shirt actually fits me. In our goody bag there are plenty of Lara Bars, a gel, and a nifty eye shade with the Hot to Trot logo on the shade. Another good idea.
After I set up my folding chair, put my drop bag on it, and afix my bib to my mesh vest, I’m ready – but it’s still pretty early so I walk around listening, asking questions, and trying to calm myself with some positive mantras. I am really not feeling so nervous now (it’s too late for that) and my biggest concern at this point is deciding whether to unzip the bottom portions of my new quick dry racing pants to make them into shorts. The weather is starting to heat up so I decide the shorts is a good idea. A couple of zips and I am cooler. I know, I know – the rule is, never wear anything new on race day – so I am taking a chance, but because the weather forecast predicted thundershowers, I wanted to wear something that would dry quickly. It did indeed rain – in fact, it POURED for several hours straight – so that was a good decision.
Just before the 8 am starting time, Ryan the RD called everyone together and gave a few basic last minute instructions. The course was marked with white streamers at crucial points. For a loop that was only a little over a mile in length, there was a surprising variety of terrain. We started on single track with a series of up and down hill berms followed by a short section of paved road which then led to a gravel tank road. Many people said that the tank road was their least favorite section but I found it to be relatively easy. It reminded me of the 7 miles of gravel and rocks in Anchorage and gave me no real problems. After the tank road portion, there was a small area of grass followed by a brief section of sand and then more single track dirt trail. Here there were some roots and rocks that could be a problem and I tried to be careful in my footing but nevertheless I managed to do a face plant on loop 7. I don’t think anyone saw me go down, fortunately, but I had bloodied my right knee and hand so when I reached the end of the loop I stopped at the (real) rest room and washed myself off. But the hardest part of the course for me was still to come: the Hills from Hell. These were not only steep but were covered with humongous roots and rocks that were arranged on a slant so that my right hip and leg had to take a much higher step up than my left. Just before we reached this point there was a neat wooden bridge; we then took a right turn that led up to the Hills from Hell. In between the Hills there was a slightly level section that allowed me to catch my breath before continuing up the second Hill. The Hills were followed by a steep gravel covered trail that led to the timing chute and aid station. We repeated this circuit again and again, as many times as possible in the 8 hour period.
The good news was that once I reached the wooden bridge, even though the hardest part was just ahead of me, I knew that the end of the loop was near and I was about to check off another mile. Most people walked the hills, including the gravel incline at the end of the loop. I walked the entire loop every time although in the very beginning I tried to run on the paved portion because that was the only part I was pretty sure would let me remain upright. I found that on the gravel hilly portions I could usually power walk faster than the runners who were walking the hills. On the other hand, the runners flew by me on the trails and I was amazed at how they managed to do so without tripping.
Yes, the weather was warm and it was kind of humid, but the thunder showers that came down on us for around 4 to 5 hours during the race cooled us off a bit. Unlike the usual steamy humidity that follows rain in the South, it was actually pleasant and there was a cool breeze every now and then. My clothes were soaked (although my new pants/shorts did keep me sort of dry) and my shoes and socks felt like bricks. Around mile 15, I decided to change into dry socks and shoes – my drop bag was not waterproof, however, and my “dry” socks were damp but still felt better than the soaked ones I took off. Rain is just one of those things that happens. Although the sand got damp and there were a few puddles to go around, I was glad that the trail stayed relatively free from mud, probably because of the tree canopy.
Since this was single track, I had to listen and watch for runners coming up behind me; I wanted to be careful not to hold anyone up as I picked my way cautiously along the trail. Around loop 19, I met up with Lia, one of the runners I had chatted with before the race began. She had tired a bit and decided to walk with me on her next loop. She was great company for me (and I hope I was for her as well) and really took my mind off the aches and pains that had started to accumulate. This was mostly due to general fatigue because trails tend to be very kind to my feet and legs and that was the case here.
Earlier I had figured out that I would need to complete 23 loops in order to get to 27.14 miles so I could count this race as an ultra. As I approached the end of the 23rd loop, the people in the timing chute (who were exceptional, by the way, and cheered me on by name every single time I came through) said that I had time to do at least 2 more loops. I was happy to do at least #24 because that would ensure an ultra for me. Lia was at least 2 loops ahead of me and wanted to complete a 50 k agreed to go around again, so we took off on another circuit.
Now I had 24 loops under my belt and was ready to call it quits. As I passed through the chute, I mentioned that I was DONE to the timing people and they said “Oh, no, you have to do another loop because you’re in the running for an award.” I couldn’t resist that possibility, so Lia and I took off for one last loop; we managed to complete that final loop in less than 15 minutes (a record for me). I had a total of 29.5 miles at that point.
At 4 pm the race ended, the burgers were cooking, people were starting to pack up and leave, and the race director began to announce the awards. The fastest (hottest) male and female were given prizes and so were the youngest person to run the entire 8 hours and the oldest person who had completed the most loops. And, yes, I WAS the OLDEST (I did have some competition) and received a lovely painting by Gabrielle Perry, a local artist, and a $25 gift card to Phidippides Running Store as well as a case of coconut water. It was a fun race with wonderful people and great volunteers. I’m not sure I would do it again because of the difficulty but I have been know to change my mind!